Monasteries Of Enchanting Spiti Valley-Saify Naqvi
Have you ever had a dream of a never ending journey or of one you wished would never end? Well, you can experience that dream with your eyes wide open – explore Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh, India.
Spiti is an intensely spiritual experience. This high altitude region is best approached by road from Delhi. There are two routes to Spiti—Delhi-Manali-Rohtang Pass-Chandra Valley OR Delhi-Shimla-Reckong Peo-Kaza. I decided to take the second option on the way out, the all-weather route, and come back via the first route which is only open from May – October due to heavy snowfall at the high altitude passes.
The Lahual and Spiti region is spread over 13830 square km, hence my trip to Spiti had to be well planned. I decided to see the five major monasteries located along the length and breadth of Spiti as my research suggested that this would be the best way to explore the place, experience local culture, enjoy the local cuisine and take in the landscape.
The landscape is absolutely breathtaking – it transports you to a totally magical world! On the other hand, interacting with local people and experiencing their hospitality also made this a trip of a lifetime. Spiti should be on the ‘must see’ list of every traveller.
As a photographer I have developed this unscientific law – ‘the harder it is to get to a place the more rewarding it will be!’ This was certainly true in this case.
The drive to Spiti is gruelling and sometimes following heavy earth-moving equipment is the only way to proceed further.
Fortunately, unsurpassed natural beauty keeps you company all the way.
When the green of the mountains gives way to the brown of the desert you know you have reached Spiti.
The town of Tabo is the gateway to Spiti valley. After three days of a gruelling drive on the Hindustan-Tibet road from Delhi, I reached Tabo monastery. Formally known as Tabo Chos Khor monastery, it is one of the oldest continuously functioning monasteries in India and the Himalayas. This 1116 year old (996 AD) monastery was built by the then King of Western Himalayas. Tabo monastery is considered to be one of the holiest Buddhist monasteries by the Dalai Lama.
Among the five key monasteries in Spiti, Tabo monastery has great importance as it has a complete original iconographic program of decoration and artefacts intact. The temple of Enlightened Gods or gTug – Lha – Khang houses stunning imagery, art and a wealth of documentation on the history and culture of that period. A few scholars of Buddhism have done their doctoral thesis on this monastery.
Buddhism is the dominant religion in Spiti. A monk’s life revolves around the life of the locals and he is dependent on them for food. Monasteries survive on donations from the locals and tourists. During the summer, everyone in Spiti is busy preparing for the harsh winter.
Most places in Spiti are cut off from the rest of the country, so the locals have to be self-reliant in terms of food and fuel. Adults spend most of their time cultivating the fields and children go to school by foot. Walking is a given—locals walk across the mountains to buy things and on rare occasions to visit the doctor or to meet friends and extended family.
The ancient tradition of making the second child of the family a lama (monk) still continues, though at a decreasing rate. Children who become lamas live in the monastery and are educated in the Buddhist way of life. They are also given a formal education. A select few get to pursue higher education in Dharamsala and if required are sent to best educational institutions abroad.
Key monastery — Looking at this fort monastery it is hard to imagine that it has been attacked and sacked several times since it was founded in the 11th century. In 1975, Key monastery was severely damaged by an earthquake and later restored with the help of the Archaeological Survey of India. This monastery is located in the town of Key, on top of a hill and is indeed a sight to behold! It is surrounded by high mountains on three sides and by the flood plains of river Spiti on the fourth. Fields of barley and peas surrounding the monastery add colour to the otherwise monochromatic landscape. Key monastery is best viewed from the village of Gaite — 11 km of an absolutely stunning drive, away from the town of Key. A particular point from Gaite, at a height of 2000 feet, provides the most spectacular view of not only the monastery but also the town of Key and nearby villages.
Every morning at 7 am, there is a full prayer ceremony where members of the public can sit and listen to the chants of Buddhist monks accompanied by Tibetan horns and drums. This ceremony may last up to three hours; monks break their fast during this ceremony. Tsampa or roasted barley powder with jasmine tea or milk is staple breakfast for the monks. My favourite moment at Key monastery was in the kitchen when a monk made hot ‘chai’ for me and taught me to make lamps from clarified butter.
Kungri monastery — Endless barren mountains is the view one gets from the main entrance of Kungri monastery. Though this is the second oldest monastery in Spiti, the building is very modern due to recent renovations facilitated by international funding. The monastery is located in the picturesque Pin Valley National Park — home to many endangered species including the snow leopard. Kungri monastery is well known for the sword dance by the Buzhens. Buzhens are a tantric cult on the verge of extinction, with only 25 Buzhens surviving in the village of Mud — a few kilometers away from Kungri monastery. Buzhen tradition is already extinct in Ladhak and Tibet.
Dhankar monastery – The fort monastery of Dhankar, built on a high cliff overlooking the confluence of Spiti and Pin rivers, is literally falling apart and no longer used. The monks have moved to a newly constructed building a kilometre away from the old building. Two lamas are deputed for a period of six months at a stretch to look after the old monastery building. These lamas are more than willing to show you around and humour you with some interesting tales. If you happen to visit Dhankar monastery a contribution to ‘Save Dhankar Monastery Fund’ would be thoughtful.
Spiti River can easily be called the lifeline of Spiti. Due to the geography and elevation, Spiti River’s entire water supply comes from the high mountain glaciers. Local people rely on the water from this river in the dry summer months. During the summer, water level is the highest in this river, due to the melting snow. Along the river you can enjoy stunning views of the setting sun.
Heading back to Delhi via Kunzum is an unsurpassed joy, the drive through the dangerous narrow roads of Kunzum gives you a sense of solitude and oneness with nature like no other place.
It is a photographer’s paradise—everywhere you look there is play of light on the barren mountains and the massive flood plains of the Spiti River.
Kunzum Pass ends where the Chandra valley begins; a small detour from the Chandra Valley will take you to Chandra Tal—probably the only lake that’s a source of a river. The Moon Lake is named such because of its crescent shape. The only sign of civilisation you see around Chandra Tal are bright coloured tents that serious trekkers use to spend the night in. There is a lake, snow covered peaks and the Chandra River for company.